Despite a marathon trip and losing his skates, Messing leads at trials

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  • Keegan Messing
    Figure skater
  • Paul Poirier
    Canadian ice dancer
  • Piper Gilles
    Canadian ice dancer
  • Madeline Schizas
    Canadian figure skater

Only a day before competing in Canada's Olympic figure skating trials, Keegan Messing was trying to work in a pair of brand new white skates.

His skates were temporarily lost with his luggage in his 33-hour marathon trip from Anchorage to Ottawa.

His own skates mercifully arrived late Thursday evening and Friday, he laid down the top performance in the men's singles short program on a night of disappointment for many.

"Your body knows what to do, you come to a competition, adversity hits, and you just roll with the punches," Messing said of his roller-coaster week. "You keep your head high, you hope for the best, and you keep that positive mindset.

Madeline Schizas is the leader after the women's short program. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro won the pairs short program, and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier lead after the rhythm dance.

Messing, a 29-year-old, who lives in Girdwood, Ak., had a shaky triple Axel, but his score of 84.38 topped a field that saw a few favourites falter. Wesley Chiu was second with 81.47, and Joseph Phan took third (78.14). Previous national champions Roman Sadovsky and Nam Nguyen were fourth and seventh, respectively, while 2019 silver medallist Stephen Gogolev had to withdraw after a positive COVID-19 test.

Messing said someone drove a pair of skates and blades in Messing's size from the Jackson factory just west of Toronto to Ottawa on Thursday, where they were mounted, sharpened and fitted. Messing checks his skates on flights, he explained, because of new air traffic rules about removable blades.

The ice dance, by comparison, was free of drama. Skating to an upbeat Elton John medley and dressed in neon orange sequined jumpsuits, Gilles and Poirier surely would have brought the crowd to its feet with their high-energy rhythm dance Friday — had there been a crowd.

The reigning world ice dance bronze medallists scored 86.98 points, and moments after their performance they reflected on competing at an Olympic trials in front of no audience.

"It feels kind of strange," said Gilles, a 29-year-old from Toronto. "Again, we don’t have the audience, so again today we really had to focus on ourselves.

"That's really what we needed to do today. We really enjoyed it and I hope that the fans at home enjoyed it as much as we did."

Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen go into Saturday's free dance in second with 81.04 while Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha are third (76.67).

Canada has three berths in ice dance for the Beijing Olympics, two in both pairs and men's singles, and one in women's singles. The team will be announced Sunday.

The trials are being held with no crowd in Ottawa due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in Ontario. The provincial government recently ruled major events could have no more than 1,000 people in attendance.

There was a smattering of applause from coaches and other officials in attendance when Gilles and Poirier struck their final pose.

"I'm smiling under this mask, I swear," Poirier said on a virtual availability with media afterward. "First and foremost we’re really treating this competition as a training opportunity for the Olympic Games. That’s where we really want to be peaking.

"We’re just excited to be back on a competitive stage, performing these programs and I think we’re just really trying to be present in the performances," added the 30-year-old from Unionville, Ont. "That’s where we’ll really focus during the next month of training and just really want people to believe in the work that we’re doing. In order for us to do that, we really need to believe in what we’re doing, to be present in each moment of the program."

Gilles and Poirier had been scheduled to compete at the Grand Prix Final last month but it was one of the first international sports events scrapped as the Omicron variant began to spread across the globe.

The virus continues to pose a major threat to athletes as a positive test from this point on could keep them from travelling to Beijing. Athletes weren't required to present a negative test before competing in Ottawa. Gogolev, who trains in the U.S., had a negative test before travelling, but was selected for random PCR testing upon arrival in Ottawa and tested positive. The 17-year-old from Toronto was the national silver medallist in 2019,

The U.S. nationals are being held with fans in Nashville, and have already seen positive cases. Two-time champion Alysa Liu withdrew from the American championships after testing positive Friday, less than a day after a third-place finish in the short program put her in position to make the Olympic team.

Vanessa James and Eric Radford, who contracted COVID over the Christmas holidays, are gunning for a spot on the Canadian team, but are fourth after the pairs short program.

"(Skating) after 12 days off (in isolation), we came here to try our best, our elements are very solid, now we just haven't had the mileage doing them over and over again for the last two weeks in a program," James said. "I think there was a little doubt that at least went through my mind and hopefully that we can erase that tomorrow."

Radford, a two-time world champion with former partner Meagan Duhamel, came out of retirement at the age of 36 to compete at another Olympics. James is looking for her first Olympics competing for Canada after representing France.

"It feels a little wild to be here right now," Radford said. "Not only to be back at a Canadian nationals for me, the last time I did this was four years ago, but also this strange approach to this competition. . . It's unfortunate the situation to not have a crowd here, the crowds is so special at nationals. I wish that Vanessa could have gotten to experience that."

Moore-Towers and Marinaro laid down one of their best performances of the season, scoring 73.02 for their skate to Forest Blakk's "Hold on Tight."

"We have had a very rough first half of the competition season," said Moore-Towers, a 29-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont. "So we're thrilled to have something a little bit closer to what we're capable of, and to get a little bit of confidence moving into the rest of the season -- we really needed that."

Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud were second in the pairs short program with 66.88 points. Deanna Stellato and Maxime Deschamps were third (63.54), edging James and Radford (63.33).

Schizas, an 18-year-old from Oakville, Ont., scored 72.05 points for a virtually flawless skate to "Dulcea Si Tandra Mea Fiara," doing a double fist pump when she finished.

Schizas has risen quickly up the Canadian women's singles ranks, winning the virtual Skate Canada Challenge last year, Canada's lone national event on a schedule all but wiped out by the pandemic. She was 13th at the world championships to secure the country one Olympic berth in her discipline.

"The Olympics were not even on my radar until after the world championships last year," said Schizas. "When I qualified Canada a spot at the Games, that's when I said to myself 'You know, I could do this. I could qualify.'"

Schizas said she would have loved to have a crowd.

"I had a big group of family and friends who were supposed to come, and I wanted them to be here," she said. "(But) I approach it as my job and I have to do what I practised to do if there is an audience or not."

Veronik Mallet from Sept-Iles, Que., was second in the short program with a score of 59.35, while two-time Olympian Gabrielle Daleman was third (58.48).

"That was really bad," said Daleman, a world bronze medallist and Olympic champion in the team event in 2018. "It's not what I've been doing in practice.

"Unfortunately it’s sport. The stuff wasn’t there and I’m really disappointed in myself. But all I can do is put today behind, focus on (Saturday) and just go out there and skate. Not for marks, results, or anyone, just skate for me and be in the moment."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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